Former President of Uruguay Luis Alberto Lacalle (Credit: Wikipedia)
Former President of Uruguay Luis Alberto Lacalle (Credit: Wikipedia)
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‘Boycotts against Israel are a dangerous weapon’

Before becoming president of Uruguay, Luis Alberto Lacalle visited Israel and left a changed man • Decades later, he still believes in combating anti-Semitism, explaining Israel's “justified” perspective to the world and learning from Israel’s successes.

Enrique Rodriguez Fabregat was a Uruguayan teacher, journalist and politician, known for his enormous contribution to the establishment of Israel within the halls of the United Nations 70 years ago. Hence, it is no surprise that his name came up almost immediately after I sat down to interview former Uruguayan President Luis Alberto Lacalle.

“I know that Fabregat is brought up a lot here in Israel, and rightfully so!” declares Lacalle. “You have to understand that all of Uruguay supported his initiative.”

“In general, Uruguay views Israel as a friend. It is one of the countries that took [Israel] under its wing at the start and voted for it in the United Nations. Uruguay and Israel are two small countries that have a lot in common. In terms of our population, we don’t have the kind of anti-Semitism you may find in other places,” he says.

After a 1973 coup d’état in Uruguay, Lacalle, then a journalist, was imprisoned for several weeks. After that, his political career took off, where he was always on the right of the political map. In 1989, Lacalle was elected president and served in the role until 1995.

During his last visit to Israel, where he feels perfectly at home by now, he received an honorary degree from Tel Aviv University as a token of appreciation for his “extraordinary achievements as a former president of Uruguay, as a statesman, as a legislator and as an international journalist; for his bold commitment to defending democratic values and human rights; for assertively condemning anti-Semitism and discrimination in all forms; and for his earnest, uncompromising friendship.”

Q: How does it feel to be honored in this way?

“Usually, prizes and honors are bestowed on people in politics or powerful people as a boost, but I can say that receiving this degree, at the age of 77, from a university in a state with Israel’s culture, is an enormous honor, and in line with my way of thinking. It is a gesture recognizing everything that I’ve done and everything that I tried to do, be it politically, intellectually or religiously in promoting dialogue between Jews and Christians in support of the State of Israel, in support of Zionism and of the Jewish communities of the world. Of all the honors I have received, it is the honors given to me here [in Israel] and by the Complutense University of Madrid that stay in my heart.”

Q: Your first visit to Israel was in 1986.

“Yes, after the end of a 12-year dictatorship in Uruguay. I was young, with a bright future apparently, and that’s why I was brought to Israel—to get to know the country. In my case, the encounter between the very Spanish Christian faith and the Jewish roots changed me. More than anything else, it was a spiritual visit. I admit that I returned to Uruguay a changed man. It wasn’t because of my visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as is usually assumed, but actually places like Capernaum, for example, that made a strong impression on me in the religious sense. When I came last December, I asked to visit Sde Boker, the grave of [founding father and first Israeli prime minister] David Ben-Gurion. It’s an amazing place!”

Q: Can you see a big difference between Israel today and the Israel you encountered 32 years ago?

“There a huge difference. I always stress the importance of initiative and the notion that knowledge and education are essential to the existence of a successful society. It should be mandatory for the citizens of Uruguay to visit Israel because your country proves that it is possible for a small country to change its reality despite large neighbors and a natural resource disadvantage. Uruguay could be very powerful, rich and progressive if it were to implement the Israeli model, with the necessary adjustments, to create and renew. This is something that already exists in Uruguay; there is a generation today that is progressing in that direction.”

A son at “risk” of becoming president

Lacalle’s fondness for Israel is evident, among other ways, in his membership in the Friends of Israel Initiative. “I am proud of it,” he declares. “Spain’s former president Jose Maria Aznar invited me to join the organization five years ago. Former Colombian President Andres Pastrana Arango is also a member. We are trying to disseminate the non-objective, but certainly justified Israeli perspective throughout the world. We are witnessing certain international organizations wage an overt war against Israel. Demanding and orchestrating boycotts against Israel is to wield a dangerous weapon in the war on Israel, and it can be very effective. For example, the UNESCO vote on the holy sites in Jerusalem [invalidating Jewish ties] went too far. The resolution was so insane because we are talking about facts, not opinions.”

Q: Do you find that you pay a price for these views?

“It’s not easy. But Uruguay is a friend of Israel’s so the challenge is less noticeable. Uruguay is a country of immigrants that has always taken in people from all over the world after wars and disasters. There are Jews in our country since the time it was a Spanish colony, particularly Jews from Spain. Those who don’t have a great love for Israel are able to make the distinction between Israel and Judaism. They argue that they oppose Zionism, not the Jews.”

Q: Do you think it is possible to be anti-Israel without being anti-Semitic?

“It’s hard. Israel is like China—a state that has existed for only 70 years that is home to a nation that has existed as a culture and a faith for more than 3,000 years. Zionism became a national symbol thanks to Theodor Herzl, who contributed to the establishment of Israel, and it is very hard to separate them. There are people who practice this intellectual exercise but I don’t think it’s possible.”

Q: About a year ago, the anti-Semitic murder of Jewish businessman David Fremd rocked Uruguay. Particularly the 25,000 Jews who call it home.

“Everyone in Uruguay thought, and thinks that it was terrible. It was a tragic surprise because this despicable murder ran contrary to the essence of Uruguay. Like I said, we are a country that takes people in. We are a true melting pot, and our nationalism is containing.”

Q: Guatemala and Paraguay have relocated their embassies to Jerusalem, after the U.S. moved its own embassy. There are a number of additional countries, including South American countries, that are planning to follow suit. Do you think Uruguay will join them?

“I don’t think that Uruguay will take such a step. While I deeply respect the U.S., I don’t think that this decision was helpful in resolving the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, even if I absolutely agree that Jerusalem is the undivided, historical capital of Israel. It is not a question of being right, but rather whether this is the right move at this time. But every state has the right to make its own decision.”

Q: Your son represents a fifth generation of your family in the party, and he will soon be a presidential candidate. Have you tried to dissuade him from pursuing this path?

“I used to tell my wife,” he laughs, “that if there is one thing that our sons won’t be, it is politicians. Because ever since they were children, they saw all the stress that it can bring, especially in my case, as president. But ultimately, he made an independent decision and told me that he wants to continue on this path. I admit that while I am very proud of him, there is always the risk that he will win.”

The former president smiles while answering the final question and adds that his family has apparently contracted the politics “virus,” as is evident in his own continued commitment to supporting Israel as a Christian, a Uruguayan and a former president.

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